Recently it was announced that the U.S. Department of Justice is going to end its oversight of Microsoft since 2001, beginning on May 12, 2011. There has been some concern voiced about what will happen after that. I suspect things will carry on like normal at Microsoft, at least for the near future. Why? Because Microsoft is busy leveraging other ways to seek profits and try and undermine competition by using something else: software patents.
While patents themselves are a good thing, applying them to software can actually have an adverse effect. Patents protect physical devices from being cloned, but when dealing with software that is based on mathematical algorithms, software patents prohibit companies from competing with similar software products. And depending on how broad the patent is, it can affect multiple products that are based on the same mathematical algorithm or user interface. This allows a company to prevent the competition from designing software that can offer the consumer a choice between products. In the end, this gives the consumer only one choice on the market (in most cases), so that they must go to the vendor that holds the software patent.
Microsoft has taken this one step further, and has started using software patents to threaten competitors into paying royalties. Unfortunately, Microsoft has the leverage to do this because they hold the patents, and they can also leverage the legal system to hold up their claims. Effectively, this cripples the competition, and can pursuade them to seek other areas, giving control to Microsoft. Sound familiar? Some larger cases that have demonstrated this behaviour have been cases of Microsoft against very large companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Barnes & Noble was the most recent case, and actually filed a countersuit claiming that Microsoft holds software patents for methods that they do not actually implement in their products. Those involved in this type of activity are sometimes referred to as a "patent troll". Another case recently arose between Google and a company called Bedrock Computer Technologies, LLC. The courts ruled in favor of Bedrock in this case, and later on Bedrock was tagged as a "patent troll" on blogs and other articles. I attempted to look into Bedrock a little as a company to see what exactly they do, and I wasn't even able to find an official website for the company. This adds to the mystery behind their claims.
There are also companies that are purposely set up to hoard patents, which Microsoft has been rumored to have used over the years as well by buying them up. On the outside this makes it appear that Microsoft has nothing to do with software patent claims because they are filed under a different company name, but under the covers the claims are in favor of Microsoft.
I'm not implicating that every lawsuit of Microsoft involving software patents is being used to squeeze royalties out of other companies. But some clearly do. Currently it seems like there is a mix of both, and in fact some companies have voluntarily filed claims against Microsoft, like i4i.
Regardless, to me it seems like resources are being drained within the legal system all because of greedy companies that are abusing the patent system for software. This should not be allowed and hopefully the courts will ensure that claims do not hurt the consumer. The use of software patents should be closely examined as a whole (which they were with the Bilski case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court). The little damage that has already been done by software patents is done. We just need to ensure that this type of activity doesn't spread, as the courts could have a difficult road ahead and companies like Microsoft will end up getting a virtualized monopoly all over again.
Thankfully there are also mechanisms that exist, to help prevent companies from abusing software patents, such as the GPLv3 license. A lot of open source software currently falls under the GPLv3 and older versions of the GPL which give the consumers much more freedom as a whole.